US-Japan leaders discuss trade, China, and North Korea

President Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Friday. Major topics included Japan's joining a regional trade pact, North Korea's recent nuclear test, and a Japan-China territorial dispute.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama listens as Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers a question from a reporter in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

Domestic issues like immigration, gun violence, and looming across-the-board spending cuts may top President Obama’s second-term agenda. But he hasn’t forgotten his vision of rebalancing US security and economic priorities towards Asia – a priority he sought to re-emphasize by receiving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House Friday for lunch and talks.

Following a morning meeting with Democratic governors, Mr. Obama greeted Mr. Abe for discussions focused on East Asia’s security challenges and expanding economic opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region – what White House officials describe as the two principle focal points of the pivot to Asia Obama announced at the outset of his presidency.

On the security agenda, the two leaders discussed the international community’s response to North Korea’s third nuclear test last month, and the maritime disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea that have led to increasingly tense relations between China and several of its neighbors – including Japan.

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At a brief picture-taking session with reporters before lunch, Obama fielded several questions on prospects for avoiding “sequestration,” or the automatic federal spending cuts set to take effect March 1. Abe answered a query about North Korea, saying, “We just cannot tolerate the actions of North Korea, such as launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests,” Saying he and Obama “agreed we would cooperate with one another and deal resolutely” with Pyongyang, Abe specifically cited the possibility of stiffer “financial sanctions.”

On the regional economy, conversation focused on Japan’s interest in joining a trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated among the US and 10 other Asia-Pacific countries.

In a joint statement issued after the two leaders’ talks, the two governments agreed that “more work needs to be done” before Japan could be included in the 11-country negotiations. The statement says that in particular Japan would have to address “concerns” over its tightly protected automotive and insurance sectors, although it also says Japan would not be required to “make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs” in order to join the talks – something that had been a sticking point for Abe. 

The US says it would like to welcome Japan into the talks for the TPP – which the US envisions as a template for 21st-century international trade and investment agreements – but it says Japan would first have to open its auto and food markets to more imports.

The TPP “is intended to be a comprehensive, ambitious, high-standard, 21st-century trade agreement,” says White House deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs Mike Froman. “Anybody who joins TPP would be expected to sign on to that goal.”

But Abe has said that a pre-requisite to cut tariffs would be a TPP deal breaker for Japan. Currently 4 percent of the automobiles sold in Japan are imports, for example, while Japan’s powerful rice farmers reject opening up to more imports.

A diplomatic flap between Japan and China over words attributed to Abe in an interview before leaving Japan for the US served as a backdrop to the Obama-Abe discussion of the rising territorial disputes in the region.

Abe was quoted in the Washington Post Thursday as having said in a Tokyo interview with the US newspaper that the Chinese government has a “deeply ingrained need” to spar with Japan and other Asian neighbors as a way to kindle nationalist sentiments at home and to keep the public’s support.

China quickly blasted the comment and demanded an explanation, calling it “rare that a country’s leader brazenly distorts facts, attacks its neighbor and instigates antagonism between regional countries.

With Abe in Washington, Japanese officials in Tokyo sought to clarify the remarks, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stating, “There is no comment made by the prime minister as saying that China wants to clash…with other countries.” Instead, Mr. Suga said that Abe had made the point that Japan values “mutually beneficial relations with China based on strategic interests.” 

In the interview (a transcript of which the newspaper has on its website) Abe says China acts “by coercion or intimidation” towards Japan and other neighbors on the territorial issues, and then answers another question on the “maritime issue” with, “What is important, first of all, is that their leaders as well as business leaders recognize how deeply engrained this issue is.”

The US, which has a bilateral defense treaty with Japan, has said the treaty does apply in the case of the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, uninhabited outcroppings that Japan administers but which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. But the US also considers the dispute a bilateral sovereignty issue that the two countries should work out peacefully and diplomatically.

Some US-Japan analysts in Washington say the US stance is not strong enough in the face of an increasingly assertive China, and are looking for Obama to use Abe’s visit as an opportunity to bolster support for America’s partners in the region facing an aggressive regional giant.

“Washington’s message should be more pointed at countering Beijing’s actions,” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Abe, who only took office in December, was quick to reverse a 12-year trend and increase Japan’s defense spending, Mr. Klingner notes, and is moving to weaken restrictions on collective defense measures inscribed in Japan’s postwar constitution. Obama should acknowledge what is a positive move in the eyes of the US by expressing strong public support for the US-Japan security alliance, a move he says would resonate across the vast region Obama wants to make America’s 21st century priority.  

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